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India's Realism and Japan's Rise as a Security Partner for the Asian Order

Amid shifting dynamics in Asia, Japan has risen as a key partner in India's foreign policy, which is shaped by a realist outlook on the geo-strategic landscape.



Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sideline of the G7 leaders' summit in Hiroshima, western Japan, May 20, 2023. (©Kyodo/via REUTERS)

Since its independence, India has faced three distinct periods of international relations. First, a bipolar Cold War world until 1990. Second, a unipolar world dominated by the United States from 1990 till the world economic crisis of 2008. Third, the present transformational Indo-Pacific moment. During each of these phases, what remained constant was India's tactical adjustment to the realism of world politics. The degree and depth of its engagement with any country varied according to the congruence of its interests. 

India's foreign policy follows the basic dictum of classic international relations reflecting political realism. This calls for opting to calibrate balancing behavior over band-wagoning and demonstrate a penchant for pragmatic issue-based partnerships. In the early years of the Cold War, and even prior, the Japan-India relationship was impacted by the former getting drawn into the American security alliance. In contrast, India chose the non-alignment path.

The China Challenge

Before becoming US President, Richard Nixon outlined the foreign policy he would pursue if elected. In a detailed essay published in the October 1967 edition of Foreign Affairs, Nixon wrote on what he called the "reality of China." 

In the essay, Nixon ruled out early recognition of the Beijing regime by the US and its admission to the United Nations. However, he also stated, "[…] the world simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies […] and threaten its neighbors […] the world cannot be safe unless China changes." 

Furthermore, Nixon indicated that the White House under him would try and change China, pulling it back into the world community "as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution." Later, in 1970, US Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green underlined that the most difficult problem the US would face in the years ahead would be the Washington–Tokyo–Beijing triangular relationship. Green emphasized that Japan's deep-rooted reservations about the US-China relationship were bound to affect Japan deeply.

India's Realist Outlook

Closer home in Asia, the rise of China, India, and a resurgent Japan led to a significant shift in the world's economic and politico-military weight from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific. In the early 1980s, India's then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966–1977, 1980–1984) met with newly appointed Foreign Secretary MK Rasgotra (1982–1985). PM Gandhi asked the latter regarding the Ministry of External Affairs' foreign relations plans. In his 2016 memoir, A Life in Diplomacy, Rasgotra recalls this meeting with PM Gandhi. 

"A Life in Diplomacy" (2016, Penguin Group), a memoir by former foreign secretary of India, MK Rasgotra.

Rasgotra advised Gandhi saying, "A country of India's size and importance cannot remain bound in an exclusive friendship with only one major power […] While our relations with France, Britain, and Germany are in good shape, we need to strengthen ties with Japan, a front-rank power of the coming decades. Next-door neighbors should be in our focus all the time without our being obsessed with them." 

Notably, during and after the Cold War, India's foreign relations were multi-directional and diversified. In the post-Cold War period, India's approach to states in its immediate and extended neighborhood changed significantly. In 1992, New Delhi pronounced the "Look East Policy." It was seen as the beginning of a profound correction in India's foreign policy, aimed primarily at promoting India's integration with East Asia and Southeast Asia. 


From 'Look East' to 'Act East'

More than two decades later, in 2014, India transformed the "Look East Policy" into a more proactive "Act East Policy." Consequently, India approached its far eastern and south-eastern neighbors in Asia (most significantly, Japan) with renewed gusto. Asia's resurgence saw India adopting a maritime strategy beyond its immediate neighborhood with an interesting amalgamation of hard and soft power. The Indian Navy began to make an impact on maritime politics stretching from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.

In the ensuing decades, new geo-strategic realities necessitated improvement in India's relations with the major and rising powers. The foreign and security policies of successive Indian governments have revolved around India's history and especially its geography. India is located at the strategic crossroads of the world's energy and trade flows overlooking the Indian Ocean. This places India at the fault lines between West and Central Asia on the one hand, and Southeast Asia and East Asia on the other.

Flowing from the past decades, what indeed comes across lucidly is India and Japan's convergence on understanding the changing realities of Asia, and focusing on their bilateral diplomacy. The salience of Japan and India to Asia's calculus gets further amplified with both emerging as net security providers to the contemporary Asian order.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).

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